Just how much does the reviewer of children’s illustrated books need to know about illustration? What about the quality of the drawing, the use of colour and so forth? Does technical knowledge help? An idea of the processes and procedures? The kind of paper on which the book is printed? Joanna Carey sets out some of the criteria involved in serious critical assessment.
I fell into reviewing by accident, when I was an art teacher. I was talking one day to the literary editor of a national newspaper; he was temporarily without a children’s books editor, and anxious about the ever increasing pile of children’s books accumulating in the office, awaiting reviews. I agreed to write a piece about picture books, illustrated books. What could be easier, I thought… and the next day a taxi disgorged an avalanche of books. I didn’t realize that the books lying in the office had been well picked over by staff, and most of the ‘plums’ had been removed – what I got was a mountain of undistinguished, unattractive, mediocre books, lots of pop-up books, lots of bad drawing, horrible design, a rude awakening as to the unimaginably vast quantity, and the hugely variable quality of books published – all with alluring press releases, all clamouring for attention. My heart sank at the thought of having to write a thousand words on them. I nearly gave up, then, right at the bottom, under a pop-up book of Bible stories, I found not a picture book, but a handsome cloth bound volume with a silk marker ribbon. It was Treasure Island from the Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics series, with Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary 1947 black and white illustrations – a reminder of the days when all respectable novels had at least a sprinkling of beautiful line drawings. Here at last was something to write about – those sinister figures, looming out of dark, densely hatched and stippled backgrounds had something of the drama, and the texture of Goya’s etchings… But then the thought struck me, maybe Peake’s illustrations weren’t drawings, but etchings. I knew they weren’t really, but suddenly I wasn’t quite sure and it was a salutary moment, for if you are going to try to write about illustration, you certainly need to feel a degree of confidence in what you are saying.
An elementary grip on the terminology
So exactly how much do you need to know? How much technical knowledge is necessary? Obviously you can’t be an expert in every area, but you need at least an elementary grip on the terminology, on the different media – pen and ink, line and wash, watercolour, gouache, collage. And while innovative illustrators today, like Lauren Child, use new technology – scanning, and manipulating images on computers – what about all the older traditions, like the different forms of printmaking, all with their very different textures – from etching and lithography to lino cuts and wood engraving… and what’s the difference between a wood cut and a wood engraving? Or a vinyl engraving? But do these details matter? Of course they do – which is why, in John Lawrence’s picture book This Little Chick, the note on the title page is so welcome, explaining that the various techniques the artist has employed – vinyl engravings, watercolour washes and printed wood textures – are all brought together with computer technology. But that sort of attention to detail is rare (American publishers often offer this kind of information as a matter of course).
And then there’s the size of the book, the format, is it horizontal or upright or is it a fat comfortable square shape – is it big enough for two or more children to look at together, or is it a tiny book like those Beatrix Potter created, to fit perfectly in the hands of a small child?
And what does the book feel like? Although we should celebrate the scope and availability of paperbacks, the tactile qualities of hardbacks – fine paper, cloth covers, sumptuous dust jackets, the stitching, the endpapers – are unforgettable but cost inevitably means that fewer and fewer children today get the chance to handle hardback picture books. But what a sense of occasion they present – like little laptop theatres: and what a colossal difference good paper makes to the impact of the artwork… an example here would be Helen Oxenbury’s Alice in Wonderland, where the texture of the paper allows both the watercolours and the pencil drawings to retain all the subtle nuances of the originals.
A good picture book can be explored at many different levels of understanding; the reviewer shouldn’t make the assumption that it is only for young children so, aside from production values, what are the main points to consider?
Composition, colour and atmosphere
The composition – the way things are placed on the page – some artists fill every available inch, others make eloquent use of the space around the images, giving the figures the freedom to inhabit the page with just the minimum of essential detail. Then there’s colour – that obviously requires a chapter of its own, and atmosphere. There are myriad ways in which atmosphere is created; look at Angela Barrett’s wonderfully ‘atmospheric’ Snow White – colour is layered and mysterious, achieving a rich bloom on the page like that on a ripe damson. She uses a whole battery of effects – airy vistas, floating points of view, intimate close ups, classical references, symbolic details, and she heightens the magic with theatrical handling of scale, light and perspective.
The importance of line
And do the illustrations sit comfortably with the text? (We’re assuming here of course that the text is perfect.) Do the illustrations go beyond the limits of the text and how do the pictures propel the story from page to page – or is there a more contemplative mood that requires a gentler pace? Perhaps most important is the drawing, the quality, the integrity of the drawing… and the LINE. Most illustrators seem to agree that line takes precedence over colour. It’s almost always the line, its character, its personality that helps you to identify the artist and to engage with the pictures. In the 18th century when books for children were first published early methods of reproduction could never accurately reflect the spirit of the artist’s original drawings – the success of the illustration depended on the skill of the reproductive engraver… and it was Thomas Bewick, the innovative wood engraver, who changed the course of illustration, developing a much finer line which could be accurately reproduced, retaining its individuality and allowing tonal variety. Bewick’s method of engraving was in use for a long time – that’s how Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice were reproduced.
Printing technology advanced in leaps and bounds, but right up to the 1950s – when black/white line drawings were such a vital (and now much missed) ingredient of so many novels it was still the case that any tone had to be created with line – this varied from the breezily atmospheric hatching of Ardizzone, to the controlled energy of Mervyn Peake’s finely wrought technique.
Nowadays, printing technology allows illustrators almost complete freedom – but still the line is of paramount importance, and exploring its character – whether it’s emphatic, hesitant, capricious or whatever, is a good starting point and I’m briefly going to look at the work of three very familiar artists, all well known for their expressive but very different use of line.
Quentin Blake’s line is instantly recognisable. You tune in immediately to its rhythmic calligraphic energy, its wit and its spontaneity. Blake draws with a deceptively casual precision and although he observes he doesn’t draw from life – the trick is, he says, having looked at and understood nature, you must then turn away and draw from the imagination. He works fast, usually with pen and ink and you can almost hear the nib scratching with jagged intensity or, with the easy momentum of a skater, fluently unfurling celebratory flourishes on the page. Blake’s line expresses a wide range of emotions – never more clearly demonstrated than in his wordless book Clown, in which, with speed, grace and economy, the line tells a moving story entirely through the exquisitely mimed gestures of its eponymous hero.
John Burningham employs a very different kind of line. He keeps the drawing to a minimum and his hesitant, broken line has a uniquely vulnerable quality that manages to be both funny and sensitive. Several of Burningham’s stories are about relationships between young and old and with his oblique humour he subtly suggests the gulf of benign incomprehension that divides the generations – figures are very simply, sparsely drawn, they stand detached and their faces, with minimal almost non-existent features, wittily emphasize their lack of communication: Georgie, for example, in The Magic Bed, alongside his overbearing grandmother, is drawn with a submissive tilt to his head – the pen sidles tentatively round his face, and although he has a nose, and a tiny dot for an eye, he has no mouth to speak of – or with, come to that.
Burningham often uses crayons and coloured pencils, but unlike many illustrators who draw in a way that, superficially, a child might aspire to, and in contrast to the noisy clamour of so many picture books, there is always a thoughtful element of reserve in his drawing.
Raymond Briggs draws with an altogether more muscular line. The drawing has a strong narrative quality, the line is sure and vigorous, with an all-embracing understanding both of form and body language that gives a robust reality to his characters – even those on the wilder shores of his peculiarly vivid imagination, like Fungus the Bogeyman. But while the drawing always maintains its authority, the character of the line does change. It was after Fungus, ‘after spending two years immersed in slime’ that he went for ‘something clean and pleasant’ in the shape of The Snowman; in which the tenderly observed, naturalistic drawings of the little boy are magically enhanced by the use of coloured crayons whose gently diffused lines subtly suggest the comfortable textures of the child’s immediate world. Like many illustrators of his vintage, Briggs always used to draw in pencil, and then ink over it, until some friends asked him why he did ‘such nice sensitive pencil drawings, and then mucked them up with ink’. It was true, he says, they did lose their freshness… and he talks about the way the Victorian illustrators had to surrender the vitality of their original drawings to the brilliant but very different skills of the engravers. So now, to preserve the character of his original pencil line, he simply photocopies them – lots of copies, so he can afford to ‘muck them up’ and then works on the photocopies with colour ‘and using crayons,’ he says, ‘the colour grows into the picture, and you get a certain softness…’
Children’s fiction today often makes front page news, but one of the problems with picture books is the lack of review space – often little more than seasonal ‘round ups’ with enthusiastic one paragraph reviews that too often end up heaping unqualified praise on too many titles distorting the overall picture. It’s good to talk in detail, but I’m sorry I’ve covered so little ground, and that, alphabetically speaking, as regards the artists, I haven’t even got beyond B. Let’s hope that the Quentin Blake Gallery of Illustration will provide a regular forum for discussion on this vast subject.
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.